church and state

Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

At least once a month, I pop open a search engine and go fishing on the World Wide Web, looking for a quotation or some other reference that I remember from the distant past. Just because you remember something -- as an aging religion-beat scribe -- doesn't mean that you are going to be able to find a reference online (or in the boxes of notes and clippings that line a wall in your basement).

So let me share what I remember about a First Things article I read just before the birth of the Internet. It focused on the differences, in terms of faith and personal style, between President Bill Clinton and the recently ousted President George H.W. Bush.

The basic idea was that Clinton, as a Bible Belt Baptist, was much more comfortable talking about his faith than the more reserved Bush, a Yankee Episcopalian. At one point there was a footnote to a press-conference transcript from the Bush campaign.

As I recall, Bush was asked what he thought about during the hours in which he floated in shark-infested Pacific Ocean waters after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II.

The transcript indicated that Bush said that he thought about Barbara, this family and God -- then there was a strategic pause before he added -- and "the separation of church and state."

Now there's a man who is a mainline Protestant's mainline Protestant.

I thought about article (if anyone can find it online, I'd love a URL) this morning while reading lots of news and commentary about the death of the 92-year-old Barbara Bush, the Bush family's beloved "Silver Fox" who had become a quirky, candid grandmother figure for millions of Americans. Good luck trying to find insights into the family's faith -- which can be sensed in between the lines, but that's as far as journalists were willing to go.

My main question: Were Barbara and George H.W. Bush the last old-school mainline Protestants -- in terms of low-key style and quiet faith -- to occupy the White House?

I mean, George W. Bush was a United Methodist, but he adopted a more outspoken, evangelical style after the religious rebirth that helped him defeat alcohol.

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No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

Prison is not always a happy place for inmates, and that's probably by design. The goal of prisons, which once were called penitentiaries because the aim was for criminals to become penitent over their crimes, is to induce serious reflection and change in the attitudes of prisoners.

When reporting on conflicts over issues of faith behind bars, it might be well for editors and reports to reflect on the basics of journalism: It's best to report all sides of the story, even if official voices may be reluctant to speak because of pending litigation.

The basics: Shari Webber-Dunn, 46, convicted in 1994 of participating in the killing of her estranged husband, the presence of Christian-themed items at the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas is too great a burden. The inmate is suing Kansas officials with the aid of the American Humanist Association.

Over at The Washington Post, the resulting coverage presents one side of what must be a two-or-more-sided story:

Church and state are too cozy at the Topeka Correctional Facility, according to a convicted murderer who has spent the past 23 years inside Kansas’s prison system.
Shari Webber-Dunn -- who in 1994 was handed a 40-year-minimum prison sentence for her role in the murder of her estranged husband -- claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that inmates at Kansas’s only women’s prison are subjected to an endless profusion of Christian imagery and propaganda, from the material posted on bulletin boards to the movies played in the common room.
The net effect, Webber-Dunn claims, adds up to an institutional message “imposing Christian beliefs on inmates” in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the prison has created a “coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a high religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers, thus violating the establishment clause.”

The Post report recounts many of the allegations raised in the lawsuit and summarizes a number of charges, including:

The prison also provides “free Christian literature including monthly church newsletters, daily devotional guides, Bible tracts, various magazine, prayer cards, pamphlets” for the inmates. Yet when Webber-Dunn wanted to buy a 3½-inch statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, she had to hire a lawyer to compel the prison to approve the religious purchase.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to issue a permanent injunction enjoining the state from continuing to allow Christian practices inside the facility.

Apart from the obligatory official side-step -- "Samir Arif, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the suit, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported" -- the Post makes zero effort to help readers understand any other side of the story.

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Son of 'Da Vinci Code'? 'Symbols' in Vatican-linked political blast cry out for translation

Son of 'Da Vinci Code'? 'Symbols' in Vatican-linked political blast cry out for translation

Actor Tom Hanks brought to life (on screen) the fictional Harvard University "symbologist" Robert Langdon, the hero of Dan Brown's fanciful novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons."

If there actually were a "symbologist" floating around, it might be useful to page them -- or Tom Hanks -- to help interpret a Vatican-linked bit of commentary about, of all things, American politics, the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and President Donald Trump's chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.

Put all THAT in your word processor, Dan Brown! Can't you almost see the trailer for that movie, releasing perhaps in time for Campaign 2020? 

Instead, we are, fortunately. in the capable hands of Rachel Zoll, religion writer for the Associated Press, and Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher. Each approaches the subject in a professional manner. Dreher, of course, has his opinions, which we'll get to in a moment.

Let's start with the AP, via Maine's Portland Press Herald. Take a gander at this longish excerpt, published under the headline "Pope confidant sees unholy U.S. alliance," to see what's causing all the fuss:

A close confidant of Pope Francis, writing Thursday in a Vatican-approved magazine, condemned the way some American evangelicals and their Roman Catholic supporters mix religion and politics, saying their worldview promotes division and hatred.
The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, said a shared desire for political influence between “evangelical fundamentalists” and some Catholics has inspired an “ecumenism of conflict” that demonizes opponents and promotes a “theocratic type of state.” ...

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Why local media coverage of West Virginia's Bible bill is far from being 'almost heaven'

Why local media coverage of West Virginia's Bible bill is far from being 'almost heaven'

There's faith-related news, apparently, in West Virginia, but the local media there are not paying too much attention.

On Monday, Feb. 20 (don't ask me why the state legislature was meeting on Presidents' Day, but apparently they did), State Delegate Ken Hicks (D-Wayne) introduced a measure to amend the state code with a single sentence: "The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book of West Virginia."

That's, um, news, rather interesting church-state news. Right?

Well, Hicks's measure did grab the attention of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, so that's a start:

"I think a lot of the biblical principles are the same principles that the state was founded on," Hicks said. "The Bible is a book that's been around for thousands of years. A lot of principles from the Bible are what modern-day and contemporary law is based on."
There currently is no official state book for West Virginia.
Hicks said he thought the state could have multiple official books, not limiting it to just the Bible. When asked about concerns as to whether the proposal would indicate an official endorsement of one religion over others by the state, Hicks said he hoped that people who were concerned would contact their legislators to let their feelings be known.

The Herald-Dispatch account -- noting the lawmaker says he is "a practicing Christian" -- quotes Hicks as saying the bill isn't designed to compel Bible reading. Yes, a bit more specificity would have been nice when dealing with his church tradition.

The measure is co-sponsored by seven other delegates, two Democrats and five Republicans. None of the other sponsors are quoted nor are their religious affiliations, if any, disclosed. Talking to the Democrats would have been a nice touch.

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'Cruxifiction': Numbing media reaction after a mayor renames Good Friday

'Cruxifiction': Numbing media reaction after a mayor renames Good Friday

Come with us now to Bloomington, Ind., where Mayor John Hamilton has announcement. He says the city's 700 employees will get two paid days off: Fall Holiday and Spring Holiday.

Don’t recognize those holy days? You may know them as Columbus Day and Good Friday. Hamilton wielded his mayoral power to rechristen them.

To be blunt about it, this is a story built for mainstream media. As usual, though, much of the mainstream news coverage is better at citing the secular side than the religious opposition.

You know, like the New York Daily News:

Hamilton espoused acceptance in a memo to city employees.
"We are terrifically proud of our diverse workforce at the city. That diversity makes us stronger and more representative of the public we proudly serve," he wrote. "These updated names for two days of well-merited time off is another way we can demonstrate our commitment to inclusivity."
Bloomington, home to Indiana University's largest campus, sits in predominantly liberal Monroe County.

Like other accounts, the newspaper also gives a rundown on the meaning behind Columbus Day and Good Friday.

That's nice, but how about some religious voices on the latter? How do church leaders feel about the safe, pastelized reference to Good Friday? It's not like journalists couldn't find local people of faith -- not with Google listing 20 congregations in several denominations in the Bloomington area. Can you say, "Google"?

The issue has even drawn attention abroad. The BBC's version sprouts so many partial quotes, it read almost like sarcasm:

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Fighting taxes: Just crazy religious antics to the Indianapolis Star

Fighting taxes: Just crazy religious antics to the Indianapolis Star

The religious crazies are at it again in Indiana, trying to use the state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for their aberrant behavior. This time, it's a guy who's trying to get out of paying taxes.

And once again, the Indianapolis Star has managed to run a religion story without talking to any religious people.

One Rodney Tyms-Bey says that "paying his state taxes is a burden on his religion," the newspaper says:

At trial, Tyms-Bey, 41, claimed the religious freedom law is a valid defense for tax evasion, an argument the court rejected.
A clause in Indiana's RFRA permits individuals to cite the law as a defense in criminal legal proceedings, unlike the federal RFRA law enacted in 1993.
"When this law was signed, it opened up a whole new world of legal defense," said Matthew Gerber, Tyms-Bey's defense attorney.
The state argues that Tyms-Bey cannot use the defense, as he failed to identify his religion and the state's imposition of income tax does not burden his religious practice — whatever it may be.

The case is two years old, but oral arguments were scheduled for appellate court today -- showing how tangled matters of church and state can get. We GR folk have scrutinized reports on RFRA and its state versions for a couple of decades -- from gay marriage in Mississippi to Santeria sacrifices in Florida -- but Tyms-Bey's case seems like an enormous reach.

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LaKira's twins: Does it matter that they were killed before they were born?

LaKira's twins: Does it matter that they were killed before they were born?

A woman is shot in the back, and her unborn twins die. She mourns them for months as her deceased babies, but local law says they weren't old enough to be considered alive.

What an anguishing clash of views of humanity: one religious/spiritual, the other rigidly legal. It's a topic ripe for exploring, yet the Washington Post manages to avoid doing so. The 1,500-word feature doesn't even include the words "faith" or "church."

LaKira Johnson's story -- with its implications for the public view of abortion and life in the womb -- has gained much media attention ever since she was caught in an apparent revenge shooting among thugs. And the Post has stayed on top of the case ever since it broke the story in September.

But its follow-up story, on Johnson's ordeal, leaves the spiritual dimensions as half-viewed ghosts.

The print headline offered enormous promise: "An enormous tragedy with the tiniest of victims." So did the subhead: "A woman is shot, and her unborn babies die. But is it homicide?"

So does some of this week's feature:

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Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Are death penalty foes modern abolitionists? Some mainstream media are reaching for that innocence by association, seeking the reflected glory of the 19th century anti-slavery movement. In so doing, however, they ignore its religious nature.

Those media include the Los Angeles Times, which uses that word three times -- once in the headline -- in its follow-up on two ballot items that fought for Californians' attention along with whom they wanted for president.

Capital punishment was the focus of two ballot items in California this week. Proposition 62 would have repealed the death penalty; voters defeated it by 53.9 percent. Proposition 66 would "expedite" the penalty, with measures like referring such cases to lower courts instead of the state Supreme Court. That one was narrowly approved, by 50.9 percent.

The issue resounds beyond the borders of the nation's most populous state, as the Los Angeles Times explains:

California had been one of the most significant states to watch regarding its decision on the death penalty, legal experts said. With nearly 750 inmates awaiting execution, almost double the number in Florida, the state has the second-highest death row population in the country.
The ballot race results showed a large divide over capital punishment in keeping with national trends and followed voter decisions in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, which became the first to approve state constitutional protections for it, and in Nebraska, where voters overturned bipartisan legislation repealing it.

For crossfire, we hear from District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County, in favor of the death penalty. Following her is former star Mike Farrell of the M*A*S*H TV series, opposing capital punishment.  

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Who is Father Rodgers? San Diego Tribune doesn't ask, even after he pickets a church

Who is Father Rodgers? San Diego Tribune doesn't ask, even after he pickets a church

Father Rodgers, who are you?

He's a Catholic priest, if you go by some of his latest coverage, picketing a church over a voters' guide. But what kind of Catholic? Some media don’t seem to ask further.

And it matters.

Take the San Diego Union Tribune, which wrote up the protest:

A Catholic priest and handful of picketers gathered outside an Old Town Catholic church Saturday to protest church messages linking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to Satan and warning that voting Democrat is a mortal sin.
Father Dermot Rodgers of St. Peter of Rome Roman Catholic Mission in Allied Gardens wore a priest’s robe and held a hand-lettered sign saying, "Separation of Church and State."
He and four like-minded men and women, including two of his parishoners, stood in front of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on San Diego Avenue amid church-goers and puzzled tourists.
They sparked spirited sidewalk debate on whether a flyer inserted in a bulletin at the church last month should have taken a political position that "It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat" and anyone who died in that state would immediately "descend into hell."

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